Lifelong learning: Colleges must embrace employers & work-centred pathways

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Lifelong learning is booming but strong collaboration between employer and university is the only way to make it effective, lasting, and worthwhile.

By U2B Staff 

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There are few industries left untouched by the lightening speed of innovation and change happening in today’s society. This constant evolution has resulted in a work environment in which skills may remain relevant for only a matter of years – in some cases months – requiring an ongoing commitment to building employee skillsets and capabilities.

Nowhere is this truer than the world of technology. Head of Human Resources at computer firm IBM, Diane Gherson, once said employee skills stay relevant for only three years, and described training as “the lifeblood” of the company.

But across all industries, the shifting workplace demands vigilance and a need to keep pace or risk irrelevance. This requirement has led to lifelong learning, in whatever form it takes, becoming an accepted part of any career path.

Lifelong learning isn’t the future – it’s now

The economic demand for skilled employees is greater than ever, with longstanding forecasts that 65 percent of job openings would require postsecondary education by 2020.

Given this reality, it perhaps not surprising that many employees crave the opportunity for advanced training and additional education. A September survey from Strada and Gallup found that 46 percent of Americans believe they need additional education to advance in their careers.

Those without a degree feeling the need to expand their knowledge base with 53 percent of adults without degrees saying they are likely or very likely to pursue more education in the next five years.


The overwhelming motivation for returning to education is to pursue career-driven and work-centred study. When people decide to pursue education beyond high school, they need to see a clear connection between education and work.

It would be logical to think that this desire to learn would be great news for universities. But studies have shown employees tend to look closer to home when weighing up professional development.

If their jobs are threatened by potential downsizing or automation, only 29 percent say they would turn first to their local college or university for help, while about half of workers – 49 percent – say they would turn first to their employer to explore upskilling opportunities or additional education.

This is the same trend in adults without degrees, who are more likely to seek education and training from employers than from traditional education institutions.

But while employers may be spending the money to provide this training, they are failing at getting the desired results and falling far short of delivering effective and relevant material.

Employers are fumbling the ball on training

Global corporate training spending has been steadily increasing over the past several years, with a total spend of US$366 billion in 2018. Considering the outgoings, the results have been disappointing.

Of the 1,500 managers surveyed from across 50 US organisations, 75 percent were dissatisfied with their company’s Learning & Development performance. While, according to Gartner, 70 percent of employees report that they don’t have mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs.

lifelong learning
Of the 1,500 managers surveyed from across 50 US organisations, 75 percent were dissatisfied with their company’s lifelong learning & development performance. Source: Helloquence / Unsplash

Companies also appear to be investing in the wrong training or failing to reinforce the learning once a student returns to the workplace. Only 12 percent of employees apply new skills learned in training programmes to their jobs, while only 25 percent of respondents to a recent McKinsey survey believe that training measurably improved performance.

There appears to be a gulf between employees wanting to learn and the learning outcomes employers are generating.

This is a gulf that universities and higher education institutions can step into – but only if they embrace the role of the employer and work-centred pathways.

Universities need to keep up & stay relevant

In the past, universities have been criticised for being too slow to react to the changing landscape of industry and failing to produce job-ready graduates when they’re needed.

Gallup found that, while 96 percent of chief academic officers at higher-education institutions say they’re effectively preparing students for work, only 11 percent of business leaders strongly agree.

The Manpower Group reports that 40 percent of employers are having trouble finding workers with the skills they need.

According to the Internet of Learning Consortium – a collective of industry’s big players like Accenture, Boeing and Microsoft – “Our academic institutions and the corporate programs that supplement their efforts are not successfully meeting the growing demand for people with appropriate job-ready skills.”

Not only are universities often slow off the mark, they may not be offering the right kind of qualifications. When it comes to the types of education consumers value most, vocational technical certificates and postgraduate degrees are both rated highly, despite coming from different ends of the educational and cost spectrum.


Both are, however, very career-focused and provide students a clear path to professional progression. Data from the Strada-Gallup Consumer Survey shows that American adults who hold certificates and certifications, but no degree, report better employment and life outcomes than those with no credential.

The report found that adults without a degree who hold a certificate or certification have higher full-time employment rates than their peers with no credentials (85 percent versus 78 percent). They also earn more, reporting a median annual income of US$45,000 compared to US$30,000 for those without credentials.

With strong benefits to pursuing sub-baccalaureate certificates and certifications, the lack of need for university degree-style qualification is perhaps another reason employees are not looking to higher education institutions for their training.

As Anthony Carnevale, Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce said in the report, the data “shows that degreed higher education isn’t the only viable path into a good career. Oftentimes short-term certificates and industry-based certifications get the job done quicker, better and cheaper.”

So while employers are missing the mark and not turning training investment into business impact, many universities are also slow to react and out of sync with what the modern professional wants.

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Colleges are adopting content being created with help from tech giants like Microsoft and Google, among others, to enhance lifelong learning offerings. Source: Mikael Kristenson / Unsplash

Collaboration is key in lifelong learning

Universities need to adjust to these employee preferences and industry demands. Working closely with employers to quicken the transition and keep in line with industry’s required skills is one major way to do this. And it’s already proving successful for many colleges and universities.

This has been particularly prevalent in tech, with many of the big names coming onboard with higher education to create new “blended learning” experience.

Colleges are adopting content being created with help from tech giants like Microsoft and Google, among others. The curriculum is developed in collaboration between the employer, industry and academics, resulting in a well-rounded, relevant, and timely course that helps all parties.

Microsoft’s technical skilling programmes prepare workers for in-demand job roles at the forefront of technology, such as data science, AI engineering and Internet of Things (IoT) administration. By creating blended learning programs that include Microsoft technical skills programmes, higher education institutions help students and workers earn an industry credential and college credits at the same time.


In addition, in support of assisting students and workers in obtaining the skills and credentials they need for employability, Microsoft has worked with the National College Credit Recommendation Service to determine college credit equivalencies for its technical skills programmes.

While Microsoft is a great example of an industry leader getting involved in training and generating its own talent pipeline, smaller businesses are also getting in on the action and taking their training needs to the professionals.

Taking the teaching to the professionals

There appears to be increasing acceptance that higher-level skill acquisition and a deeper understanding of fundamental core principles is required to make training investment worthwhile. Universities are the best positioned to deliver this cutting-edge, of the minute training that will pay dividends in the long run.

To make this more appealing and valuable, there is now more opportunity for employers to work directly with academics to tailor training experiences to suit their needs and the aspirations of their employees.


Gone are the days when apprenticeships were restricted to trade jobs. The rise of the professional apprenticeship provides an avenue for employers to get tailored assistance in staff training. While employees don’t end up with a full degree, they get a much-desired qualification, expertly taught content, and skills that will serve them well throughout their career.

There are very few jobs these days that don’t require some form of training or lifelong learning. For most employees, pursuing an undergraduate or postgraduate degree is simply not possible or appealing – whether that be for financial or practical reasons.

But, as the studies have shown, that doesn’t mean their desire to learn is in any way diminished. Quite the contrary. Employees want to learn, and employers want train them, and universities have the expertise to help. Collectively they have everything needed to make it happen. Making that next stage of education for professionals both accessible and useful will just require collaboration.